Oil and the other variables in the coming U.S.-Iran rapprochement

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Fariborz Saremi

Currently the Middle East is in a state of upheaval from which it may never truly recover. Politically, the region as a whole is extremely unstable, as are several countries within the region.

To ensure that permanent chaos does not ensue the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, the two major power brokers in the region, will have to find enough common ground to allow cooperation for establishing lasting peace.

An Iranian oil tanker arrives in South Korea.
An Iranian oil tanker arrives in South Korea.

There are precedents for cooperation between the two countries. They worked together to produce a modicum of stability in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, it remains in their respective interest to consolidate that fragile stability now that the USA has withdrawn from Iraq and will be withdrawing from Afghanistan. Further they share interests in limiting the negative fallout from the so-called Arab Spring. In particular, they would ultimately protect Saudi Arabia from any potential attempts by radical Salafists to overthrow the ruling monarchy.

Despite these potential areas of common interest, major obstacles to rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran remain.

First and foremost the matter of Iranian nuclear ambitions still hasn’t been resolved.

Furthermore, the two countries are at odds concerning the conflict in Syria. As a long-standing ally of Syria, Iran is committed to a pro-Assad eastern alliance comprising the Syrian government itself plus Russia, China, Iraq and Iran. Their chief objective is to fend off western supported attempts by Salafists radicals to overthrow the Assad government. The western alliance opposing them includes not only the USA but also the EU, Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

This stand-off between the two alliances and the seemingly unresolvable conflict between the Assad government and anti-Assad rebels in Syria effectively condemns any attempts at real cooperation between Washington and Teheran to failure.

The deep mistrust that the Iranian government already felt towards the U.S. has been exacerbated because the U.S.’s call for more cooperation between the U.S. and Iran contradicts its apparent attempts to undermine Iranian interests. For example, Iran is deeply concerned by U.S. support for Turkey and Qatar, two rivals in the area who have been supplying weapons to Syrian rebels.

Optimists have been encouraged by the election of President Hassan Rouhani, a perceived moderate, in the recent presidential ballot in Iran. While he has since stated that Iran is open to working constructively with the international community, his hands are tied when it comes to concrete steps in that direction.

It is not only Iran’s mistrust of the West, nor its need to ensure that any move towards international cooperation not be interpreted as weakness that hampers his room for maneuver, but a raft of internal issues which require Rouhani’s immediate and close attention. These include: a volatile economy and depressed domestic market; soaring inflation, a currency rapidly losing value; serious levels of unemployment and; a sizable proportion of the population that is under the poverty line.

The fact that Rouhani must cope with all these issues under the gaze of a highly expectant population only adds to the difficulty of his task. Moreover, the power of the president has declined significantly over the last three decades or so. Today real power resides in the hands of the Supreme Leader backed by the military muscle of the Revolutionary Guards.

The Supreme Leader also exerts control over the purse strings and other essential elements of government. For instance the head of the Judiciary is appointed by the Supreme Leader, effectively killing its independence.

Nevertheless, Rouhani seems determined to lead Iran both out of the international wilderness and out of its current economic misery. Both tasks go hand in hand in any case. To give the Iranian economy a reasonable chance of growth requires the lifting of crippling international sanctions. This in turn requires cooperation with the U.S. on Iran’s nuclear installations.

Rouhani cannot, however, offer any meaningful dialogue with the U.S. government unless Obama can somehow verify that the U.S. and the West in general do not want to exploit the turmoil in Syria as a pretext for installing a secular opposition government in the Islamic Republic of Iran. At the moment a catch-22 situation that requires proactive assurances from Washington and greater understanding in U.S. government circles that U.S. support for countries hostile to Iran only serves to alienate Iran.

Optimists, myself included, are sure that both Obama and Rouhani desire rapprochement but are being hampered by more obstinate forces within their respective governments; the Israel lobby in Congress and the Revolutionary Guards in Iran. Moreover, even the Supreme Leader must by now be aware that rapprochement with the West is good for Iranian national security and for improving the Iranian economy.

Iran has one major ace in its sleeve. The U.S. needs the huge oil and gas reserves in the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea.

The region is thought to contain around 50 percent of the world’s oil resources. Iran is geographically in a prime position to make U.S. access to those reserves, difficult and therefore U.S. cannot afford to ignore Iran.

Dr. Fariborz Saremi is a strategic analyst based in Hamburg/Germany and a regular contributor for World Tribune.com, Freepressers.com and Defense&Foreign Affairs.